Reflections by Kirk 7/18/14
23 July 2014
Now that we have left Alaska, I would like to relay a few miscellaneous thoughts of our experience there.
• Tidewater glaciers in Tracy Arm and in Glacier Bay. Both places were awesome but Kris and I both feel that we liked Tracy Arm a little better. Watching giant hunks of ice crashing into the sea is quite an experience. For anyone contemplating a trip like ours, Tracy Arm is a shorter trip.
• Being awakened by the sounds of a 5.7 magnitude earthquake at four in the morning in Glacier Bay.
• Watching sea otters floating around with pups perched on their bellies.
• Watching and listening to sea lions at their gathering places.
• Lots of tall mountains covered with snow.
• The people of Alaska, particularly the integration of native peoples and their culture into society.
• The city of Sitka, a place central to the history of Alaska.
• The City of Petersburg.
• The village of Elfin Cove.
• Meyers Chuck.
• Other cruisers that we met.
TIDES AND CURRENTS
Tidal ranges up here are large. The smallest difference between the highest high and the lowest low of any day was at least 15 feet during periods of neap tides. During periods of spring tides, the differences were normally 20 and as much as 23 feet; and this is only a sample during the two months that we were in Alaska. The differences were more noticeable further north and further from the open ocean. The tidal differences are so profound that every harbor we entered has a tidal grid. This is a very simple arrangement that allows one to work on the underwater parts of a boat between tides. A row of tall vertical piers are installed somewhere near the one half tide level on the beach. At the bottom of the piers an arrangement of horizontal timbers are built at right angles to the piers, parallel to one another and parallel to the sea level. At high tide there is enough water over the timbers to park your boat over them and be tied to the piers. You stay on the boat as the tide goes down until the bottom of your boat rests on the timbers. The boat must be tied just right to the piers to keep it upright. When the tide goes down, the bottom of the boat will be exposed for about six hours until the tide level comes back up. There is always a water supply nearby. We watched many boats get pressure washed and bottom painted during one low tide cycle. If the work takes more time, you must hang around on the boat while it floats back up off of the timber grid and then settles back down with the rising and falling tides. We never saw indications of fees for using the grids, but did see notices saying that their use must be scheduled with the harbormaster. You must bring your own pressure washer and a generator if there is no power source nearby. This is in contrast to the Puget Sound area where we must pay hundreds of dollars for haul outs, lay days blocking and all of the other miscellaneous charges that boatyards fabricate.
The large tidal ranges also have implications in anchoring. If you anchor the boat in 20 feet of water when the tide will drop 22 feet, at some point in time the boat will be lying on it's side. This greatly enhances difficulties in things like walking around, cooking meals and using the head. Conversely, if you anchor in 20 feet of water at low tide and lay out the proper amount of anchor line for 20 feet, it probably will not work so well if the tide then rises another 20 feet.
Along with large tidal ranges are the accompanying big currents. In the open ocean tidal currents are not much of an issue, but when these large volumes of water must traverse a space confined by land or shallow depths, currents result and these currents will reverse about four times a day in relation to the rising and falling tides. Even in sounds or straits five miles wide and 3,000 feet deep, currents can exceed two knots (about 2.3 MPH). When depths become more shallow or spaces become more narrow, currents can run much faster than our boat can move. If we were foolish enough to attempt it, we would find ourselves moving backwards against strong currents even at full throttle or moving so fast over the ground going with a strong current that we would be unable to avoid stationary objects like rocks. Fortunately, there are tide and current guides that allow us to more or less accurately predict times of maximum current velocity as well as to predict when the current, for however briefly, will stop altogether during the change from flood (in) to ebb (out). During our passages through some of the narrow shallow passages, we found the guides to be valuable and were able to use the current entirely to our advantage. In some of the larger passages, we found the currents were sometimes capricious. There were times that we planned a day's run calculating that we would get a two-knot assist from the current, meaning that we would be travelling eight knots over the ground even though we only made six knots through the water. If a day's run was 50 miles, we should have arrived at our destination in a little over six hours. Imagine our dismay when we discovered that the current was, in fact, running against us, prolonging the trip from six hours to a little over nine hours. We checked our calculations several times and always came to the same conclusion that the current just ran much differently than the guides led us to predict. We also found that eddies caused by islands or points projecting out into the channels could last for miles beyond what we expected. We classify these things as a learning experience.
RESIDENTS' SATISFACTION WITH LIVING IN ALASKA
To my mind there are challenges to living in Alaska. I think almost all of southeast Alaska is classified as temperate rainforest. This means abundant rainfall. We lived is the Seattle area for over three decades and thought we had an understanding of rain but we were wrong. It is with no authority or research whatsoever, so take it with a grain of salt, but I believe that Ketchikan must be the rainiest place on earth. For more than half of the days that we were there, we thought the rain was coming down in buckets; and, when we had to be out in it, we went fully rain suited. At nearly every place we stopped, people would ask where we were from and how long we would be staying. We could not understand how these people determined that we were "not from around here." We were buying groceries or hardware or boat parts just like anyone else. After about the tenth time this happened, I finally asked the clerk "Am I wearing a badge or something that says I'm not from around here?" He laughed and said, "No, it's just that you are wearing a raincoat." Go figure.
Travel is a challenge. There is usually only one town big enough to have a high school on a few of the many islands that are inhabited. The only way in or out of any island is by boat or plane. The big towns, meaning maybe more than 1,500 persons, may have an airport served by Alaska Airlines jets. Anywhere else was limited to small dirt strips or more commonly to float planes. This not only means that travel plans can be complex, but also expensive. Say you live in one of the really outlying communities. The floatplane trip to an airport served by Alaska Airlines must be scheduled and will cost a few hundred dollars. The Alaska Airlines trip to Seattle for the connecting flight to elsewhere will also need to be scheduled and will cost a few more hundred dollars as well as the probability of overnight accommodations near the airport. Think about away games for high school basketball teams. This is a much bigger thing than getting on the bus after school, going to the opposing team's gym, playing the game, getting on the bus back to the school for your parents to pick you up late at night. An away game up here means either a trip on an airplane or with the Alaska State Ferry system and the definite need for overnight accommodations. Some of these high school athletes have enough air miles to fly to Hawaii and back.
Hours of light and dark are also quite a bit different than any of us in the other forty-nine states are even remotely familiar with. The furthest north that Kris and I made it was Glacier Bay National Park during the first week of June --- two weeks short of the summer solstice (BTW- congrats Adam and Asher on a successful solstice time festival). During our time at Glacier Bay, and for a few weeks on either side, it never got truly dark. Official sunset may have been just after 10:00 PM and sunrise around 4:00 AM, but there was a bright glow in the north between those hours. We had to put sunscreens on the overhead hatch in our sleeping area, as it was absolutely bright out by 4:00 AM every day. This was tolerable. I'm not sure how well I could adapt to the opposite near the winter solstice.
Despite these challenges and many others, the vast majority of local people that we talked with say they could never live "down south," - too crowded, bad air, bad attitudes, bad hunting and fishing etc. Alaskans have not only adapted to what I perceive as challenges, they revel in them.
Alaska is really big. If overlaid on a map of the lower forty-eight, Alaska would stretch nearly from our northern to our southern borders and from Utah to Pennsylvania. We only travelled within a tiny portion of the whole state and that was still big. It is not only the square miles that are big. The mountains are big. We did not even come close to seeing the really tall mountains but saw at least one peak that was over 1,000 feet taller than any peak in the lower forty-eight. The waterways are big. I had always considered Puget Sound, where I learned to sail, as a big waterway. There are several waterways just in southeast Alaska that we have travelled that are as big and in some cases much bigger than Puget Sound.
In southeast Alaska, commercial fishing is one of the larger components of commerce. Gill-netters, purse seiners, long liners, crabbers, shrimpers, bottom draggers, tenders, and others are all boats outfitted for a particular style of fishing. Many boats can be adapted with different setups to suit the style of fishing for different species in the different seasons. These boats and the men and women who skipper and act as crew are everywhere. In the Seattle area, recreational boats have their places of moorage and commercial fishing boats have their places of moorage. It seems that there is not much interaction between the two different kinds of boats and boaters. Up here everybody shares the same places. When we have pulled up to a dock in any harbor, we are just as likely to be parked next to a commercial fishing vessel as to a recreational vessel. We almost always end up talking with people on the boats that are around us; and consequently, we have learned things about commercial fishing and fishermen that we may never have learned in Seattle. I have developed an admiration for the vessels and people who man them that I had never imagined I might have.
EXTREMES OF LATITUDE AND LONGITUDE
The furthest north that we traveled was 59 degrees 03.43 minutes north latitude. The furthest west was 137 degrees 03.71 minutes west longitude. Both the extreme of latitude and longitude occurred in the same place, at the head of Tarr Inlet where Marjorie and Grand Pacific glaciers meet at waters edge in Glacier Bay National Park. By way of comparison, our slip at Shilshole Marina in Seattle was 47 degrees 40.71 minutes north and 122 degrees 24.55 minutes west. If one were to travel as far south from Seattle as we traveled north you would be in the vicinity of Monterey Bay, CA. The same west longitude would put you about halfway between Los Angeles and Hawaii. My hometown in Burlington NJ is at about 40 degrees 40 minutes north latitude and 74 degrees 53 minutes west longitude. If one were to travel as far south from Burlington as we traveled to the north of Burlington's latitude, you would be somewhere south of Havana Cuba. The same longitudinal distance to the west would put you somewhere west of Chicago.
We saw hundreds and maybe over a thousand waterfalls. We include anything that falls from heights and is shining white with spray as a waterfall. Some may have been small trickles such as you may get from a six inch pipe. Most were not free falling through the air like Niagara Falls or Snoqualmie Falls, but ran down the mountainsides. Some were huge. Many fell from great heights well over 1,000 feet. Some waterfalls we could follow for a few hundred feet then they may disappear behind some trees or a rock face and reappear a few hundred feet lower down the mountainside. In some places several waterfalls would start from tall ridges surrounding a very steep valley type area. The smaller waterfalls would all join up in the valley and become a roaring torrent crashing down to sea level. We saw more waterfalls in April and May as all of the mountaintops were still covered in snow. Towards the later part of June and now towards the end of July there is not as much snow in the mountains so there are not as many waterfalls. In several of the places where we anchored for a night or two, we would see more than ten different waterfalls from the cockpit of our boat. Very cool.
It has now been over one year since we "cut the dock lines" in Seattle. Neither one of us have driven a car in that time.
No, not the Philadelphia kind, the kind with white heads and tails. We cannot remember one day in Alaska when we did not see Bald Eagles. We watched them roosting in treetops and in their nests. We watched them soaring to great heights without any flapping of wings. We watched them capture fish from the sea and take it back to juveniles in the nest. As often as not we would hear their harsh creaking cackle, kleek-kik-ik-ik-ik, before we saw them. That is how the Bald Eagles call is described in Peterson's Guide to Western Birds. I'm not certain how I could describe the call, but it is distinctive and immediately identifiable. Bald Eagles are very opportunistic birds that can always be found in abundance near harbors that cater to fishermen, waiting for the refuse of fish cleaning activity. We once watched an eagle capture a fish from the water. Almost immediately another eagle came swooping down, as though to attack the bird with the fish. The fish was dropped back into the water, whence a third eagle materialized to pick it up again. Soon there were at least eight Bald Eagles fighting over this one poor fish, but by now very dead fish. A few times an intimidated eagle would drop the fish and another would catch it in mid air. One particularly agile flyer faked right and then swerved left leaving the competition behind to find a branch where he could finally eat a well-earned meal.
We are not particularly avid bird watchers, so are unable to identify all the species that we saw, but we did see lots of different kinds of waterfowl and seabirds. Ravens had special interest for me, as this bird is a central figure in all of the native people's stories. They look very similar to crows which seem to be so common in the lower forty-eight, but the raven is a much larger bird and is said to have even more intelligence than crows, who are known to be pretty darn smart.
We expected to see lots of bears both Brown (Grizzlies) and Black, but were mostly disappointed in that regard. We did see both Brown and Black bears, but only a few. We were too early for salmon runs to reach the streams where bears are said to be common sights when salmon are running. Or maybe we were just not looking in the right places at the right times.
We also did not see as many whales as we expected. We did see lots of Humpback whales and some Orcas (Killer Whales). We had been led to believe that at times we would see dozens or maybe even a hundred humpbacks all feeding together, but that did not happen for us. We did see lots of sea mammals from sea otters, to seals, to sea lions, to Orcas, to Humpbacks.
BRITISH COLUMBIA VERSUS ALASKA
It does seem that things change when you cross that invisible line in the middle of Dixon Entrance that separates British Columbia, Canada from Alaska, USA. Alaska seems bigger, more majestic, more wild. Anchorages are generally deeper with bottoms that may be hard and rocky. Many marine areas are not thoroughly surveyed and charts lack detail. We had more anxiety with weather and anchorages in Alaska. Alaska has more towns than Coastal BC. Even in a slow boat like ours, an airport served by Alaska Airlines jets is always within a few days travel. Once away from the immediate vicinity of these towns the feeling of wild wilderness returns. We have felt genuine friendliness from locals in both BC and in Alaska, but it just seems even a little more genuine in Alaska. Alaskans, particularly those born in the State, seem to have a more independent spirit than what I am accustomed to. 'We can hunt and fish for our food. We can log trees to build our homes. We can take care of ourselves. Keep the government out of my hair.' This is of course a generalization, but it is there.
BC seems to me to be a more intimate place. The mountains seem a little lower and more rounded. The anchorages, in general seem cozier and more secure. Things are more expensive in BC. In the Gulf Islands, Desolation Sound and in the Broughtons, marina operators seem to take every opportunity possible to separate you from your money. Eating 'out' is a much more pleasurable experience in BC. Salads are more creative. Burgers are almost always handmade. Seafood chowders don't have that starchy thickness and flavor so common in US chowders. Fresh ingredients are much more common in BC. I feel more comfortable in BC than Alaska. Perhaps that is because I have spent only two plus months in Alaska and well over one year in BC waters, perhaps not.
Should the opportunity arise again, I would definitely revisit Alaska via boat, but right now, the call of palm trees and sandy beaches beckons and it is unlikely that we will spend a winter up here to do it again next summer.